Wal-Mart green lights the ‘Banana Wave’ and dozens of other products at annual Open Call

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 2,558 views 

H.E. Neter Alkebulan and business partner Michael Baptiste of Florida-based Banana Wave were easily spotted donning yellow banana costumes in a crowd of business suits and pencil skirts at Wal-Mart’s annual Open Call. But it wasn’t their costumes that impressed buyers; it was the creative product.

Alkebulan and Baptiste pitched their non-dairy banana beverage to Wal-Mart buyers at the retailer’s 4th Open Call on Wednesday. It has the consistency of skim milk with a banana flavor. Although it is a non-dairy product, it’s called Banana Milk, made from bananas, flaxseed and oatmeal.

Alkebulan formed the company in 2013 and based the drink on his grandmother’s ancient African recipe. Banana Wave has already found success at Whole Foods, Albertson’s and H-E-B. He said the product was also sold in 40 Walmart U.S. stores near Riverside, Calif., since January 2016, but he got the green light to go national with Wal-Mart on Wednesday.

“I took my grandmother’s recipe when I was in college and bottled it up. When I graduated college my fiancé and I took about six months to write the business plan in 2013, and we were homeless at the time. We stuck it out and wrote the plan and entered it into business plan competitions around the country and it won. We were going around selling Banana Milk out of the truck and at Farmer’s Market just three years ago. When we got enough money saved we invested in the packaging. It took me two years to get product commercial ready,” Alkebulan told Talk Business & Politics.

Banana Wave outsources production to a couple of manufacturers in New York and Florida and Alkebulan said the Wednesday meeting was a big success.

“Wal-Mart told me it’s going to be huge when they ride the Banana Wave,” he said.

More than 100 suppliers got deals on the spot, according to Cindi Marsiglio, Walmart vice president, U.S. Manufacturing.

Banana Wave founders Michael Baptiste and H.E. Neter Alkebulan of Miami, Fla., were excited to hear Wal-Mart is expanding their banana milk product nationally. It has already been selling in some California stores.

“American entrepreneurship is on full display during Open Call,” Marsiglio said. “Today has been a fantastic show of innovation, and we are proud to extend an offer and digital shelf space on Walmart.com to today’s participants.”

She said investments in U.S. manufacturing are important to not only job growth but product innovation. Marsiglio said the journey for dozens of the participants is far from over. Many will continue to have discussions with buyers and further develop their products for a chance to be on store shelves as well as online.

Not every hopeful supplier pitching products at the Open Call already had products in Wal-Mart or any retailer for that matter. Nathan Failla, a 23-year-old recent college grad from Pittsburgh, pitched his hair gel packaged for people on the go. He was approved to place the product in 500 stores to start. His company Pocket Gel is a new supplier to retail. The product is made in Michigan.

Failla, who majored in entrepreneurial studies and graduated in 2016, told Talk Business & Politics he often wanted hair gel packaged so he could use it when he got to his destination.

“I was meeting my family for dinner one night and it was blowing rain and I thought it would be great to have a small pack of hair gel that I could carry in my pocket and then fix my hair once I got to the restaurant. I began putting hair gel in foil to carry with me to the gym when I decided that maybe other people had a similar need. I spent the next year refining the packaging until I got it right,” he said.

The first person Failla told about his deal with Wal-Mart was his mom, who insisted he call her immediately after his meeting with buyers.

“She was very excited for me,” he added.

Hugh and Nicole Jarratt of Fayetteville pitched their wood warmer home fragrance products to buyers Wednesday afternoon. Jarratt said his buyer, Amy Bagley, liked the product enough to test it between 500 and 1,000 stores in the coming months.

Jarratt Industries has pitched a product in each of the four year’s Wal-Mart has held the Open Call, and they have had product in Wal-Mart nationwide for two years. He had hoped the buyer would like the product but said he underestimated her response.

“Our meeting went very well. They want eight scents and we are going to work with them to deliver on that. It was great to get to meet the entire team today including the replenishment manager and sourcing agents who were also in the meeting,” Jarratt said.

Nathan Failla displays his Pocket Gel product which will initially be sold in 500 stores.

The wood warmers are in production at Manufacturing Multiples in Heber Springs but Jarratt said getting the packaging right will likely take the most time.

Talk Business & Politics interviewed two Wal-Mart buyers who said they saw some of the most inventive items in this year’s event, more so than in other years. Toy buyer Dawn Henry said toys she would see in Wednesday’s open call wouldn’t likely hit shelves until fall 2018 at the earliest. She said buyers are looking for items that don’t feel like a “me too” item. For instance, spinners have become popular but there have been many suppliers making them.

“We would be looking for the next iteration of a spinner, not simply another spinner,” she said.

When asked how many toy suppliers have production in the U.S., Henry said it has slowly come back for many items like season pools and swings sets, but dolls are still largely made abroad given the complicated process of sewing in the hair. She said if there was machine that could automate that process then doll production could be reshored.

One of the most popular toys is LOL Doll. Henry said while technology has played a large role in toys there are still some good sellers that involve no technology like board games which have grown in popularity. Henry said Wal-Mart prides itself on being an item merchant, so having one great item is sometimes better than having a dozen mediocre products that take up shelf space.

Becky Blake, a buyer in kitchen gadgets, said the level of presentations she saw this year was stellar.

“It’s been so nice to sit here and actually buy stuff today. The presentations were great showing insightful innovation,” Blake said.

T-Sleeve, based in Phoenix, presented before Blake and her sourcing and replenishment team. Julie Wentz, founder of T-Sleeve, said the product is a better solution for tea drinkers. The product is a pouch that encompasses the tea bag which can be used to squeeze out the residual tea once it’s finished steeping. Wentz said the product is eco-friendly and helps eliminate wet sticky tea bags that leak on cabinets and stain.

T-Sleeve has been sold in Whole Foods. Blake liked the product and told Wentz it is better suited to be a clip-on item than occupy shelf space. Whole Foods sold it as a clip-on item, which is displayed on the tea aisle. There is a different buyer for clip-on and Wentz was to meet with that buyer before returning to Phoenix late Thursday.

“I think it went well, they liked the product and they didn’t say no. I am hopeful the clip-on buyer will see the potential,” Wentz said.

Following are just a few of the other products approved by Wal-Mart buyers.
• Dera-ties, reusable zip ties
• O’Dang Hummus, various flavors
• Decalomania – Augmented Reality Wall Decal
• Iya Foods – One Pot Simmer Sauce
• Haven Sales & Marketing – Gourmet Orange Chili Soy Sauce
• Haven Sales & Marketing – Carson’s Fully Cooked Ribs
• Tony’s Turkey Tamales
• Ontario Knife Company – Old Hickory 5-piece Cutlery Set
• Stinkbug Naturals – Lavender Stick Deodorant
• Beard Balm
• Spot Stuff – Spot Remover
• Tidal Vision – Game Meat Protector
• Sayre Enterprises, Inc. – Service Pride Service Keychain
• TipSee Light Co., LLC – The Cane-Lite